Bernelda Wheeler | The Canadian Encyclopedia

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Bernelda Wheeler

Bernelda Winona Sakinasikwe Wheeler (née Pratt), broadcaster, journalist, author, poet, actor, social activist (born 8 April 1937 in Fort Qu’Appelle, SK; died 10 September 2005 in Saskatoon, SK). Bernelda Wheeler was an award-winning author and pioneering Indigenous broadcaster, sometimes referred to as the ‘First Lady of Native Broadcasting’. Wheeler was equally well-known as an Indigenous author of children’s literature. She was one of the hosts of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s landmark Indigenous program, Our Native Land, from 1972 to 1982. Wheeler was one of the first female Indigenous journalists in Canada.

Early Life & Education

Bernelda Wheeler was born on the George Gordon First Nation, located in Southeastern Saskatchewan, in 1937 (see First Nations in Saskatchewan). Her parents, Colin and Clara Pratt, were from the George Gordon First Nation. She was one of six children, and her family was of Cree, Assiniboine and Saulteaux ancestry.

Wheeler spent much of her childhood living on the George Gordon First Nation reserve. Her family had a family farm on the reserve. They moved to Northern Manitoba in 1946. Wheeler’s family lived in Herb Lake and Churchill, Manitoba. She was sent to attend Manitoba’s Birtle and Brandon residential schools. Wheeler experienced both physical and emotional abuse while in the residential schools. Despite suffering from this abuse, Wheeler went to high school in Churchill and became the first person in her family to graduate from a secondary school. She was also the first Status Indian to attend Churchill High School.

Wheeler wanted to go into medicine and was enrolled in a pre-med program at the University of Manitoba. However, she had to withdraw because her family couldn’t afford it. Despite this, Wheeler was also the first person in her family to attend university.

Early Career and Journalism

Bernelda Wheeler was passionate about many things, and she tried her hand at nearly all of them. A lifelong interest in radio began with her start in broadcasting at the age of 17. Her career began as a disc jockey on Churchill radio station CFHC, which was affiliated with the CBC’s Northern Service at the time. Wheeler also briefly worked in print journalism. Before returning to work with the CBC in the late 1960s, she also worked as a practical nurse. When she returned, she served as a producer, host and investigative journalist for the program Our Native Land. The program was pioneering for multiple reasons. It was national in scope and produced by and for an Indigenous audience. It was created as a forum for the opinions of Indigenous people across Canada. For many Indigenous people, Wheeler was the first Indigenous voice they ever heard on a broadcast medium. The program was unique because it focused on issues and news pertinent to Indigenous people. It also emerged at a time in which most news about Indigenous people was produced, written, narrated or explained by non-Indigenous broadcasters and journalists. Wheeler was a pioneer in this respect. She interviewed Indigenous people and helped raise awareness of Indigenous issues, news and current affairs. She brought this information to a wide audience, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.

It was during her 10 year stint working on Our Native Land that Wheeler first became known as the ‘First Lady of Native Broadcasting in Canada’. She was given a special award for Indigenous broadcasting when her time at Our Native Land came to an end in 1982. During her tenure, the program was twice nominated for ACTRA awards, including for Best Writer and Best Radio Program.

For generations of Indigenous people in Canada, the phrase “My Name is Bernelda Wheeler, and this is Our Native Land” was instantly recognizable.

Literary and Acting Career

Bernelda Wheeler started her literary career in 1984, taking an Indigenous writers’ workshop sponsored by the branch of Manitoba Education responsible for Indigenous education. During this course, she wrote three children’s books, including her two best known, Where Did You Get Your Moccasins and I Cant Have Bannock but the Beaver has a Dam. The former won the Children’s Choice Award and the Toronto Children’s Book Award. The books were well received and remain popular to this day. They are often found on required reading lists for elementary schools across Canada. Where Did You Get Your Moccasins is on the list of 50 multicultural books every child should read released by the US-based National Education Association.

As an actor, Wheeler appeared on stage and screen. Her film and television credits include Honey Moccasin (1998), The Strange Case of Bunny Weequod (1999), Big Bear (1998), Christmas at Wapos Bay (2002) and Now & Forever (2002). On stage, Wheeler began acting in 1983 and is perhaps best known for her role as Philomena Moosetail and Pelajia Patchnose in five productions of The Rez Sisters by Tomson Highway. She also appeared in the play Someday at Regina’s Globe Theatre and Montreal’s Centaur Theater. Wheeler was also an advisor to the Aboriginal Film and Video Alliance.

Social Activism

Bernelda Wheeler was a committed social activist. In her later years, she traveled across Canada and spoke of her experiences in residential schools. She was a member of Grandmothers for Justice Society and was one of the founders of the National Association of Friendship Centres (see also Friendship Centres). This association provides a wide variety of social and cultural services, programs and support to Indigenous people across Canada.

When Wheeler passed away in 2005, Manitoba Minister of Culture, Heritage and Tourism Eric Robinson, remarked that Wheeler was “a pioneer in media and literary circles” and that “Bernelda will always be remembered for her sensitive storytelling of the lives of aboriginal people.”

Awards & Accolades

  • Citizen of the Year, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (now Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations), 2002
  • Rebel With a Cause, The Elizabeth Fry Society, 2005
  • Lifetime Achievement Award, Anskohk Aboriginal Literature Festival, 2005